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How To Cook Japanese (multi-review)

A Review On: Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art

Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art

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ChrisLehrer
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Pros: A masterpiece, and the foundation of any collection of Japanese cookbooks

Cons: A bit dated, no photos

Reviewed:

Shizuo Tsuji, Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art

Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen

Mark Robinson, Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook

Yoshihiro Murata, Japanese Home Cooking with Master Chef Murata

Kuwako Takahashi, The Joy of Japanese Cooking

Masako Yamaoka, A First Book of Japanese Cooking

Lesley Downer, At the Japanese Table

Emi Kasuko and Yasuko Fukuoka, Japanese Cooking

Hiromitsu Nozaki, Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes

Tsuji Culinary Institute, eds., Kitchen Knife Usage [houchou no tsukai-kata, 使い], series “How to Cook Delicious Food [ryōri-o oishi kusaru, 理をおいしくさる]

 

There are several core problems with Japanese cookbooks. For one thing, an awful lot of English-speaking readers are stymied when it comes to something more than sushi and miso soup: what else do the Japanese eat? A lot, actually, but little of it finds its way onto Western restaurant menus. There is also a tendency to get wound up about authenticity, which is fine in its place but requires that one already know a good deal about what’s authentic Japanese cuisine, on which see the first point. A related phenomenon is the whole overwrought shtick about Japanese food as high art. If you want to be serious about that, you have to talk about things like kaiseki that you pretty much cannot begin to execute at home, and anyway it is quite possible that if you ever eat real kaiseki you might hate it – as a lot of Japanese do.

 

There is also the regional problem: much of what gets presented as traditional and/or authentic is actually region-specific. The knowledgeable eye spots this particularly in the handling of dashi (the broth base for just about all Japanese dishes), sugar, and miso: if dashi is light, sugar strong, and miso significantly red, this is Tokyo-style, but if you replace that with smoky-strong, light, and white, respectively, you’re in Kyoto. That may sound trivial, but consider the sweet rolled egg (dashimaki tamago) you get in sushi places. If you get this in Kyoto, it tastes stunningly different, because it is very savory and minimally sweet. Since the foundation flavor of almost every dish in the Japanese repertoire depends on dashi, usually accented with sugar, salt, and sake, regional flavors make all the difference in the world. For a rough comparison, you might imagine a cookbook claiming to present “authentic French cuisine” in which most everything was Provençal cooking, or “authentic Italian cuisine” entirely based on Emilia-Romagna.

 

Last but not least, one has to wonder why anyone needs anything beyond Shizuo Tsuji’s classic, Japanese Cuisine: A Simple Art.

 

In A Simple Art, Tsuji – a mildly distinguished chef who trained in France as well as Japan and then set up an extremely important culinary school in Osaka – tried to explicate the foundations of Japanese cuisine, thoroughly, without fear or favor. Since the book was first published in 1980, he felt it necessary to comment that eating raw fish might seem “barbaric” but is actually a good thing – something nobody would bother to say now, with the sushi craze long since ubiquitous. But he also includes dishes that, in all honesty, almost nobody is going to try. For example, toriniku barei-age (p. 411) is little more than chicken thigh meat wrapped in a sheet of potato and deep-fried. Very nice, but it requires the cook to use the katsura-muki technique to peel a long, continuous sheet of paper-thin potato. This requires practice and, if possible, an usuba-bouchou knife, the latter in turn demanding a lot of money, even more skill, and considerable expertise with sharpening stones.

 

Such oddities aside, A Simple Art covers pretty much everything you really need to know about classic Japanese cuisine, from simple, home-style dishes to fairly elaborate tours that you’d only likely see in passably high-end restaurants. The latter is well represented by “flounder treasure ships” (karei Riky­ū funamori): deep-fried flounder skeletons served as boats containing sesame-coated fried flounder meat, crisp noodle fans, and quick-fried shishito peppers, but dishes like this are surrounded by ordinary things like kinpira gobō (see recipe below) and a selection of hot-pot or casseroled dishes (nabemono), the crème de la crème of “true home-style taste” in Japan.

 

The exceptional depth and range are handled through a clever doubling device. In the first half, Tsuji lays out all the basic types of dish (clear soup, sashimi, grilled, steamed, simmered, fried, sauced, casseroled, rice, etc.) with detailed explications and just a couple of exemplary recipes. In the second half, he goes through the same cycle again – it’s the classical order of a full banquet meal – and includes lots more dishes and no explanation of the system. So to use this book well, read straight through the first half, in order, and think about what he is showing you. Do a dish in each section, work on the techniques, and you’ll get the hang of it. Once you have that pat, the rest is a straight cookbook with recipes classified by the same system. In the first section he also examines ingredients (dated but good), presentation, and classical aesthetics. Surprisingly, Tsuji manages to explain all this abstract material in a graceful, clear style that one rarely sees in cookbooks. Perhaps because he admired such writing, Tsuji invited the great M. F. K. Fisher to write a thoughtful and valuable introduction; this is marred, in the 25th anniversary edition, by Ruth Reichl’s obsequious, exoticizing new foreword, but I suppose if you love Reichl you might not find this as irritating as I do.

 

Now if you’ve actually worked through in this way, you have a great base for understanding Japanese cuisine, not only as a cook but also in terms of what you might eat in a restaurant not bound entirely to that distinctively Tokyo-style street food, sushi. (I realize that it is very hot these days to insist that street food is the best indicator of what a place’s food is all about, but let’s bear in mind that by this standard, the French don’t have any food worth discussing. Besides, it’s properly Edomae-zushi, Tokyo-style sushi; there are other kinds, but you won’t find them much outside Japan.) In any event, anyone who buys Japanese cookbooks these days either hasn’t worked through Tsuji (or doesn’t know about it) or is looking for something more, and this opens up a range of additional texts.

 

Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku is the closest thing to a competitor for Tsuji’s book that this reviewer has seen. In addition to being passably comprehensive, it includes the now-requisite color photos, without which A Simple Art looks positively drab. Her recipes are also constructed with an eye to what Americans can actually get at good supermarkets (a lot, but not everything), which goes a long way toward making things plausible. For example, the honest truth is that only an expert or a crazy person can make more than a couple of kinds of sashimi from an American market, because the fish quality simply isn’t good enough. Andoh recognizes this and leaves the whole question of raw fish aside, whereas Tsuji figures that you should happily eat anything raw provided you first interrogate the fish-man about where and when he got his fish. (For example, he suggests making sashimi from rainbow trout you just caught in a river, something that would shock many experts on safe food preparation.) Andoh also includes a lovely opening section on basic Japanese ingredients, with photographs and explanatory text, which will be extremely helpful to the neophyte. On the other hand, she unfortunately ignores high-end Japanese cuisine, presumably figuring that home cooks aren’t much interested in such things (and, admittedly, it doesn’t fit her cookbook concept, which is sort of the problem here). The trouble is, English-speaking home cooks have been trained to think of Japanese cooking as some kind of superior art form for so long that many cannot get past the idea that they should be doing high-end things early and often. Edomae-zushi may only be street food, but it’s made into such a big deal in both Tokyo and outside Japan that one can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that if you’re going to cook Japanese at home, you’d better get very hard-core about it. Another omission, one I find inexplicable, is nabemono (casserole or hot-pot dishes), which fit squarely into Andoh’s mission and yet go unmentioned. On the other hand, she does have a terrific online site supporting the book, periodically updated with new things, so if you want nabemono she’ll probably be willing to oblige. In any event, Washoku ends up, unintentionally, being far more “alternative” than A Simple Art, because Andoh gives us almost nothing the average Anglo-American has ever eaten, even in a Japanese restaurant.

 

If you really want alternative, though, you might want to go further afield and check out Mark Robinson’s Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook, which shows what’s truly hot and interesting in Japanese cooking these days – in Japan, that is. An izakaya is essentially a bar, and the food is bar food, but Japanese bar food is so far from nachos that it’s hard to connect the dots. Arguably the most exciting food in Japan right now happens in these bars, where all kinds of different traditions and innovations intersect. Everything is done on the fly, in tiny kitchens, by wizards who also entertain you and serve your drinks. Some of the recipes here are rhapsodic exercises in difference: let’s face it, you’re not going to make “motsu” beef-intestine stew, nor will you make a dish that requires a year of curing, especially as in this case (tofu miso-zuke, miso-cured tofu, p. 117) the curing is essentially controlled rotting. But a lot of these things could be effectively knocked out by a passably skilled home cook willing to think ahead – and to think about what else was being served, as these are little munchies, constituting a meal only in considerable quantity. For example, the soy-flavored spare ribs (wafu supearibu, p. 92) would make a great party dish. The “deep-fried sardine rocks” (iwashi no ganseki-age, p. 85) are a bit more rarefied, I suppose, but when it gets down to it you can prepare everything in advance and do the final frying before serving as an hors-d’oeuvre for a dinner party. One does have to think seriously about how such dishes will combine with other foods, but the book can be used for its recipes. That said, I think it’s pretty clear that Robinson’s book is really intended as a love-letter to the izakaya, and the recipes are largely incidental to that laudable purpose.

 

On the opposite end of the scale, in multiple senses, Murata Yoshihiro, the current doyen and ambassador of Kyoto kaiseki, has a remarkable little book that takes core principles of Japanese cuisine and reconstructs them on an accessible basis. The results are not like anything else I’ve seen. The simplicity is so extreme – as it should be, given the kaiseki foundations – that many dishes seem like nothing special. That’s right: the finest Japanese cuisine (and kaiseki is that) is nothing but a ludicrously intense seriousness about ordinary home cooking, where some little dish grandma knocked out is elevated to transcendence. Here Murata tries to do the same by telling you how your Japanese-American grandma would have cooked things, or perhaps should have, rather than showing you how he would reinterpret dishes for the Kyoto connoisseur. He uses chicken stock instead of dashi for most dishes, tailors things to smoked salmon instead of raw (figuring, correctly, that any fool can buy smoked salmon in a decent grocery store), and so on. But he never lets go of studied perfectionism. For example, the sautéed pork with ginger and tomato (p. 26) takes three quick steps to complete and uses only one remotely tricky ingredient – sake, which these days you can find in liquor stores. But pork and tomato? How about potato kinpira with bacon (see recipe below), which reinterprets kinpira to use western favorites? Is this Japanese cooking? Not precisely. But it is perhaps the most authentic reinterpretation of Japanese home cooking for a western audience that anyone has tried. Instead of rushing about for special ingredients, which all by itself changes home cooking into special-occasion fanciness, Murata wants you to buy things you can get anywhere and treat them in a Japanese manner.

 

There are many other options along the way, though they generally pale by comparison to Tsuji’s work. Kuwako Takahashi’s classic Joy of Japanese Cooking, for example, has the great merit of explaining everything in utterly straightforward terms, with no superlatives. She claims nothing about art or aesthetics, although in the interstices you can find all kinds of indications that she attended a fancy cooking school and taught serious Japanese cuisine for home cooks. And there are lots of gems here, classics like “green asparagus and carrot with tofu dressing” (asparagus to ninjin no shira-ae). It’s also worth mentioning that the index for this volume was clearly executed with love and care: you can actually find anything you want with it, which is unpleasantly rare in cookbooks. Masako Yamaoka’s A First Book of Japanese Cooking attempts much the same thing, with lesser but still occasionally useful results.

 

A rather different perspective is represented by Lesley Downer’s At the Japanese Table, which is mostly about the artsy end, making the simple fancy, and has some lovely pictures to support this – though not enough, if you ask me. If what you want is Japanese cuisine as high art, the book is a start, though I wish you luck in presenting the dishes as they appear in the pictures: you’ll need a lot of ill-described technique for that. A nice thing about Emi Kazuko and Yasuko Fukuoka’s Japanese Cooking, a competitor to Downer’s book, is a lengthy introductory section that not only lists various Japanese ingredients that you might be able to find at an Asian grocery store, but also gives nice big photos so that you know what you’re looking for: it can be very irritating to ask a Thai grocer for an ingredient whose name you can barely mispronounce in Japanese, but if you show him a picture he might well be able to help. Still, I could wish that all these authors took the whole visual art thing more seriously, giving some good examples of what the Japanese might consider food presentation as high art: kaiseki and other formal Japanese dining lend themselves to beautiful photography (something seen in passing in Downer’s book), which would help here not least because the presentation is so utterly unlike what we might imagine from sushi places. And in neither book do we get all that many recipes.

 

Those who get excited about Japanese cooking technique usually, at some point, get caught up in the knife mystique. Well and good, but the subject is complex and probably not, on the whole, quite what you wanted to hear. If you want answers straight, Hiromitsu Nozaki’s Japanese Kitchen Knives is unquestionably the place to start. Nozaki shows all three classical professional knives (usuba, deba, yanagiba) and gives a solid account of their principles, use, and maintenance. He does not provide a lot of information for the collector – brands, for example, are ignored – and this infuriates some readers. But the book is about how to use such knives, not which ones to buy. What is annoying, in this context, is that he provides little information about what these knives are going to cost, and that’s quite another matter: you can buy bad professional knives and suffer for it, but if you’re going to buy decent ones it’s going to set you back a fair chunk of change. Don’t expect that $75 “Asian vegetable knife” to perform like a proper usuba-bouchou (starting around $200)! A great plus is that Nozaki pulls no punches on technique, so it is obvious that using these knives well will require practice and patience. He uses a presentation one finds in a lot of primers for Japanese professionals: the few recipes are selected entirely on the principle that in order to make a given dish, you must execute particular knife techniques. For example, immediately after explaining ken- or needle-cutting, Nozaki gives a needle-cut vegetable salad with sesame dressing. In essence, you make a spicy Japanese salad dressing and serve it as a sauce with large piles of needle-cut carrot, daikon, radish, cucumber, and ginger. If you’re not going to spend months learning knife basics (or re-learning them, if you have French-style technique, which won’t help), you can skip this book – but you should also skip the knives.

 

If you’re really serious about knife technique, however, there are many competitors to Nozaki – in Japanese. Since my language abilities are rudimentary, I find it most useful to work with books that, in true Japanese publishing style, are like comic books made of photographs with minimal text. As an example, the Tsuji Culinary Institute’s  使い [Kitchen Knife Usage – and in case you were wondering, yes, it’s that Tsuji] – gives page after page of how-to photographs on how to cut more or less everything, from vegetables to fish, and at the end of each of those two sections you find recipes that demonstrate every major technique. For fish-cutting alone, which is obviously a significant issue in Japanese cuisine, the numerous competing books (check out a Japanese bookstore on this) strike me as much of a muchness; where they vary is in the practical utility of the pictures or photos, as well as in the range of fish and seafood presented. If you can find a book that also includes a DVD of the chef demonstrating everything, that’s nice too, although these days you can find most of what you’d want on YouTube anyway (check out the feeds from Itasan18 and Jon Broida’s Japan Knife Society).

 

Once you realize that all the sushi books in the world tell you nothing whatever about how the Japanese actually eat (and what’s more don’t teach you how to make great sushi!), you are left with lots of options – but few good ones. Nobody who wants to cook Japanese should be without Shizuo Tsuji’s book, the only masterpiece of the bunch. It’s a book fully as good as anything Julia Child ever wrote, and I say that as someone who deeply admires Child’s work in all fields. Taking the comparison a bit further, what A Simple Art is not is Escoffier’s Guide culinaire. No book like that exists in translation, and to the best of my knowledge there is nothing quite like it in Japanese either.

 

While we await the Japanese Escoffier, what’s lacking?

 

If you already have Tsuji, you ought to think about why you want something else. It may be to focus on some special area of Japanese cuisine, be it knife technique or country cooking or innovative pub food; there are also specialty texts on things like pickles (tsukemono) and hot-pot dishes (nabemono). Maybe you are looking for presentation and plating ideas, in which case I’d buy anything you can about kaiseki and otherwise skim the web. It would be nice to see more region-specific cookbooks – Osaka is currently very hot, for example, and their favorites don’t look much like what you get in Tokyo or Kyoto – but as yet the cookbook market, like the restaurant market, is principally saturated with sushi. This is a pity, because if you get talking with Japanese people about food, a lot of them will want to talk about local specialty foods. There are numerous (untranslated) knife books, and all kinds of (equally untranslated) texts by influential big-gun chefs about “what’s tasty, what I like” [こんなん旨いこんなん好き] to borrow a title from Murata.

 

If you just want to make sushi, bear in mind the words of a distinguished Japanese chef (from Kyoto, of course): “Edomae-zushi? You just put a piece of fish on a rice ball. Any idiot [aho] can do that!” You might disagree with the flippancy of the remark, but the fact remains that sushi is neither the dominant form of Japanese food nor its greatest achievement. When you can cover the range of Japanese culinary forms, understand how they intersect and talk to each other, you can truly cook Japanese. In the meantime, make some kinpira gobō and serve with excellent steamed rice. You will be well on your way – and Tsuji will tell you how to do it. The rest are appendices.

 

Recipes

I provide here three quite different takes on this home-style classic. Ellipses are cross-references within a given text. {Curvy braces} appear as [square braces] in the original; I preserve [square braces] for the traditional editorial insertions. Otherwise, orthographic and typographic variation are preserved as precisely as possible.

 

Burdock or Carrot Kinpira (Kinpira Gobō or Ninjin) きんぴら牛蒡又はにんじん

From Shizuo Tsuji, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art

 

1 medium burdock root, scrubbed with a brush, or 3 medium carrots

few Tb vegetable oil

 

For simmering:

2 Tb sake

2 Tb dark soy sauce

1 scant Tb sugar

 

¼ tsp red pepper flakes (ichimi) or seven-spice mixture (shichimi)

 

To prepare and cook: Cut burdock in shavings as if sharpening a pencil (the sasagaki cutting technique…). Keep cut burdock in water to avoid discoloration. Scrape carrots and cut into 2-inch {5-cm} julienne strips.

            Coat the bottom of a frying pan with a few Tb oil, heat, and add vegetable. Stir-fry over high heat till vegetable begins to soften (about 3 minutes). Add the sake to the pan, stir in the soy sauce and sugar, and continue stir-frying over medium heat till the liquid has been almost completely reduced. Stir occasionally to keep the vegetable from sticking to the pan. Flavor to taste with red pepper flakes or seven-spice mixture. [It should have a faint “kick,” but not be spicy as such; the “heat” should be all background.]

 

To serve: Serve hot or at room temperature. Either serve family style in a large dish or in small individual dishes during the rice course. This dish is also a fine companion for sake. Keeps one week, refrigerated in a sealed container. [Best at room temperature – never cold – as a garnish for plain rice served with other dishes.]

            Combines well with chicken-‘n-egg on rice [i.e., oyako-don]… and miso soup….

 

variations: Konnyaku (devil’s-tongue jelly)—rub cake with salt, lightly pound, wash, and cut into thin 1-inch squares. [This preparation is important, as konnyaku has an unpleasant off-smell until cleansed.]

Lotus root (renkon)—scrape surface, cut into thin rounds, then quarter the rounds. Till ready to use, keep cut lotus root in water with a drop of vinegar to whiten it.

Minced meat—for a different effect, you may also use ground meat (pork, beef, chicken) together with the vegetable. Use ¼ pound (115g) and fry with the vegetable.

 

Fiery Parsnips (Kimpira)

From Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku

 

Serves 4

            2 or 3 parsnips, about 7 ounces total weight

            ½ tsp sesame oil

            1 tsp saké

            ½ tsp sugar

            2 Tb soy sauce

            Pinch of shichimi tōgarashi…

            White sesame seeds, freshly dry-roasted … for garnish (optional)

 

To free the parsnips of dirt or other gritty material, scrub them with the rough side of a kitchen sponge or scrape them with the back of your knife. The peel, however, is nutritious and tasty and should not be stripped away. Slice the parsnips into narrow julienne strips about 1¼ inches long. You should have about 1½ cups strips. Spread them out on a towel to dry.

            In a nonstick skillet, heat the sesame oil over high heat. Add the parsnips and stir-fry for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the saké and stir fry for 1 minute. Add the sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes more, or until the parsnips are lightly carmelized [sic]. Add the soy sauce and continue to cook and stir for 1 or 2 minutes, or until the liquid is nearly gone and the parsnips are just tender and well glazed.

            Sprinkle with shichimi tōgarashi and toss to distribute well. Remove the pan from the heat and let the parsnips cool to room temperature.

            Mound in small bowls as individual portions, or serve in a single bowl, family style, and garnish with the sesame seeds, if desired. Store leftovers in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

 

Potato Kimpira with Bacon

From Yoshihiro Murata, Japanese Home Cooking

 

Serves 2

 

Ingredients

2 medium all-purpose potatoes

2 slices bacon

1 Tb vegetable oil

½ tsp crushed chili pepper

1 Tb soy sauce

1 Tb sugar

1 Tb water

½ tsp toasted sesame seeds

1 scallion, chopped

Ground black pepper

 

  1. Wash and peel the potatoes. Cut lengthwise into ¼ in. (7 mm) slices, and cut each slice into ¼ in. (7 cm [sic, he means 7mm]) sticks. Chop the bacon roughly.
  2. Place the vegetable oil, bacon, and crushed chili pepper in a frying pan over medium heat and cook until the bacon fat renders out. Add the potato, soy sauce, sugar, and water, and cook until the liquid is almost gone. Turn off the heat, sprinkle with the sesame seeds, and stir once.

Arrange the potato kimpira in a serving bowl and top with the chopped scallions and ground black pepper.

3 Comments:

Thank you for a detailed analysis of Japanese cookbooks and the state of affairs regarding the ones available in English. This is very useful. I'll be saving this article and sending it to a few people.
I had read a few books from Japanese cuisine, including some of the ones reviewed by Chris Lehrer before I stumbled into Tsuji's A Simple Art, and reading it I realized everything Chris writes in his fabulous review. A Simple Art allowed me to understand Japanese cooking beyond recipes and it is well written and enjoyable. It is the reference I keep going back to, and to quote Chris, “If you already have Tsuji, you ought to think about why you want something else”. Thank you Chris, for a very enjoyable review and one with which I resonate.
Thank you for this review. I have had an old edition of The Simple Art of Japanese Cooking for over 20 years and barely used it. You've convinced me it is time to give it another look.